A sixteenth century crossbow was amazingly heavy.
Rabbit fur blankets are made from strips of fur bound together on a loom. Turkey feather blankets are made in a similar fashion. Both are as warm as modern down coats.
To use a chest crutch, you need to punch, not just push.
Pueblo pottery from between 1325 and 1700 can be accurately typed and dated by rims. An expert can tell blindfolded with just a fragment when a piece was made.
Yucca fiber can be used to spin a very strong cord.
The historic pueblo of Mojo is quite likely located right off Coors Road in Albuquerque.
If you’re going to open-fire pottery, you need at least a breeze or the fire won’t get hot enough.
These and other marvelous bits of information were among the things I learned this past Sunday when I attended the “Chiles and Sherds” archeological event hosted by the Office of Archeological Studies (OAS) of the Museum of New Mexico.
“Chiles and Sherds” is OAS’s annual fund-raiser and educational event. The venue changes from year to year, but the event’s emphasis is always some aspect of New Mexico’s rich archeological tradition.
This year, the location was the lovely Albuquerque Open Spaces Visitor Center on the west side of the city. Tucked between Coor’s Road and the bosque (river forest), the Open Space’s Center is an oasis of quiet – a real jewel that I can’t decide whether I wish more people knew about or that I want to keep a secret.
Just north of the center, on land owned by the City of Albuquerque, are the ruins of an adobe pueblo that was occupied roughly between 1300 and 1600. Thousands of local residents drive by it each day, unaware that what looks like gently rising and falling ground (you can’t even really call what’s there “hills”) is shaped the way it is because below the surface are the remains of plazas, middens, and thousands of rooms.
Exactly which pueblo this was is open to debate. In fact, several of the talks given during “Chiles and Sherds” explored the evidence for and against this being Mojo – a pueblo that Coronado besieged for months, and where several pitched battles were fought.
But I don’t want to give the impression that this was a dry academic event. Far from it! Remember those crossbows I mentioned? In honor of one of the Coronado Expedition’s most popular weapons, a hobbyist named Don Menning very kindly brought along a part of his collection of crossbows, including a couple of accurate replicas of the bows Coronado’s men would have carried.
Perhaps I should say “hauled.” When Don insisted I pick up one of the replicas, I was staggered – literally – by the weight. I don’t usually consider myself a wimp. I carry twenty-five pound bags of guinea pig chow around with ease. These, however, must have weighed nearly twice that. The bow section was made of thick steel, so was the mechanism. The wooden stock was a solid chuck of wood. The cord used for the winding was twice the diameter of my clothesline.
According to Don, the quarrels (that’s the proper term for a crossbow arrow) with their folded metal tips would have weighed about a pound apiece. A solider going into battle would have carried about twenty of these – in addition to the bow, in addition to the heavy winding mechanism, in addition to the weight of his steel breast and back plates, and steel helmet.
The great advantage of a crossbow over a long bow was the time it took to learn to use one effectively. Long bows – especially of the size and weight used to punch through armor – take a lifetime to master. Within a week or two, a solider could be trained to arm and point a crossbow – the bow’s mechanism provided the punch and carrying power.
No wonder the Indians residing along the bosque when Coronado’s forces came riding through were overwhelmed. Their armaments included bows, however, these weren’t the great English longbow. They were shorter bows, meant for hunting rabbits, squirrels, water fowl, and the occasional deer.
Of course I couldn’t shoot the crossbow – no one did, given that these have enough power to punch through a steel plate or a modern wall. However, Don very kindly let me shoot a light-weight replica of a Chinese repeating crossbow. If I ever write a fourth book in the “Breaking the Wall” series, you can count on these showing up! It was really neat.
After playing with the crossbows, it was inevitable that between tours (I was volunteering as a supporting guide), I would find my way out to the range where you could try an atlatl or bow. I’ve used an atlatl (often called a “spear thrower”) before, but it’s been years since I fired a bow. When I was a kid, I worked out how to make bows, starting with twigs and bits of grass, graduating up to something like a crude short bow. However, I never studied archery and my mostly city life hasn’t exactly provided room for flinging projectiles around.
Mary and Isaiah, who were running that event, encouraged me to take up a short bow Mary had made. I found I remembered enough to get some decent distance, not enough to actually hit the target (okay, I’ll blame the breeze), but the activity certainly did awaken a desire to take up playing around with such again. I understand that OAS has a pamphlet on making arrows. Maybe I’ll get a copy…
Meanwhile, Jim was demonstrating not only traditional flintknapping, but how a device called a “chest crutch” could be used to knock longer blades off a chunk of obsidian. These blades provided the sharp cutting edges of the macanas, a sort of hybrid sword/ club that was the principle melee weapon used by Coronado’s indigenous allies.
Over near the archery/atlatl range, several potters, including Eric Blinman of OAS and Ulysses Reid of Zia Pueblo were demonstrating how pottery could be fired over an open fire rather than in a kiln or pit. The same light breeze that was enough to send my lightweight reed arrows off course was not enough to get the fire quite hot enough. Still, later in the afternoon, I saw Eric wandering around, his newly-fired bowl hanging from his fingertips. When he tapped it, it rang like a bell. Although he wasn’t satisfied with it (are experts ever?), he did admit that it was a functional piece, that is “It wouldn’t melt if you cooked in it.”
The “chile” part of “Chiles and Sherds” is a high-class catered lunch. This one was fantastic, even better for being served on a perfect autumn day under a tent in good company. That sense of good company continued throughout the day. Eventually, Ulysses the potter took a break and wandered over to sit with Jim and discuss flintknapping. Various experts and enthusiastic amateurs engaged in a vivid cross-fertilization of ideas and theories.
By the end of the day, slightly sunburnt (I forgot to put on extra sun-block when I twisted my hair up) but very, very happy, I assisted Jim in loading his gear into the car. I’d listened to several lectures that had deepened my appreciation for local history. Even better for someone who lives a little too much in her own head, I’d gotten out and played with some neat toys, smelled what pottery firing over a fire is like, and added to my store of “know.”
What do I mean by that? Well, an axiom of the trade is “Write about what you know…”